EDMONTON – Ken Holland may have moved on from the Detroit Red Wings when it became clear that Steve Yzerman’s time had come in Motown. His influence still runs deep through the Detroit organization, however.
It starts with Detroit GM Yzerman, who stepped off the ice as a lifetime Red Wing to learn at the feet of the GM who likely knew before anyone that the day would come when he’d be stepping aside for Yzerman.
Today Yzerman presides over a hockey department that has nothing but ties to Holland, with names like Pat Verbeek, Shawn Horcoff, Jiri Fischer, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Dan Cleary all working in some capacity for the Red Wings. Each of those former players has a piece of Holland in their front office game, a foundation on which the new, post-Holland Red Wings will be built.
"I’m a big believer in what Ken Holland is," said Kris Draper, the Director of Amateur Scouting for Detroit, a 17-year Red Wings player. "Ken Holland believes in culture, and creating a winning attitude within that culture. Then, when you start getting superstars buying into that culture — the McDavids, the Draisaitls, the Yzermans, the Lidstroms — and you plug third- and fourth-line guys come into a team where there is that culture and work ethic (coming down) from the top…
"That’s where you become a great team."
The last general manager in Edmonton, Peter Chiarelli, shunned public appearances like the pre-game media meal, while sitting in his own private press box across the arena from the one inhabited by media, scouts and officials who inhabit an NHL press box.
Holland had a "Reserved for Ken Holland" sign printed and placed on a table at the media meal — a standing reservation, if you will — and kibitzes over coffee during intermissions with scouts, media, and staff from other teams every night in Edmonton.
"You have a question? I’m right here."
He is an open book, to the extent an NHL general manager can be. It’s just not in his nature not to be.
"If you’re having dinner with Ken Holland in the middle of the summer, a good portion of the conversation is going to be about hockey," said Maltby, now a pro scout for Detroit after 14 seasons as a Red Wing. "On top of that, he knows what he’ talking about. He understands the game."
Maltby is one of those former players, like Draper, or Cleary, whose career ended under Holland. For longer than they knew, he’d viewed those players as possible post-career hires, but when the job presented itself, he got out of their way and let them figure out where they would best fit.
"He allowed me to find my style," Maltby said. "When you’re a hockey player, if you’re going to score goals, then score goals. If not, you need to find your niche. In scouting, he gave me some basic advice — make sure you get your credentials sorted out ahead of time, get your hotel and airline points arranged — then go up there and put your reports together.
"He let me figure things out. How I would develop my style of scouting."
It’s the same for a young draft pick, like Oilers centre Riley Sheahan was back in 2010 when Detroit drafted him in the first round.
"When you get drafted by Detroit, you don’t see the lineup for another however many years. I went back to school, tried to figure it out there," said Sheahan, who would play two more seasons at Notre Dame and spend a couple of years in the minors with Grand Rapids. It was exactly how he expected things to go.
"Messages aren’t cloudy with Ken. It’s pretty clear. He is honest, and loyal too. Look at how many guys go back to work there, live there. Raise their families there."
One of the early ‘Ken Holland’ moments in Edmonton came when he sent down four top prospects with a good eight or nine days left in camp. The message was, "Get down to Bakersfield, find an apartment and get settled."
What wasn’t said was, "You’re not getting called up before Christmas, and likely not all season, if we can help it."
Holland didn’t say it, because he doesn’t have to.
"When guys are down in the minors," said Draper, "he wants them to learn how to be pros, learn the right way, and when they get called up they’re ready to play. Ready to make an impact.
"He wants them coming up for eight, 10, 12 years. Not eight, 10, 12 games."
When Draper stepped off the ice, Holland opened up his office door to him.
"Come work with me," Draper said Holland told him. "Come in the front office. Come for lunch, When I’m on the phone, listen to the conversations that I have with agents and other general managers…"
Start learning the game. Because as Holland would tell you, there is no finish line in that race.